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Culture I

As the cultural theorist Johan Fomas (2012) points out (via his reading of Raymond Williams), the word culture is one of the most difficult words in the English language to try to define. Fomas, rather than trying to give a definitive definition, explores different ways in which culture has been understood within cultural theory: usually one or a combination of the four following ways. First, culture understood in ontological terms places culture opposite nature, “the word ‘culture’ going back to words for cultivation, gradually transferred from gardening to self-cultivating of the human mind and social communities” (Fomas, 2012, p. 492). Second, German romanticism’s anthropological understanding of culture views it as a life-form or form of life. Third, for an aesthetic understanding of culture as aesthetics, “culture is understood as constituted by the varies of arts and later again possibly also including popular culture and everyday aesthetics” (p. 492). The fourth way, which is also Fomas’ position, is described as containing all of the others: emerging during the past half-century, the hermeneutic understanding of culture “as ‘signifying-practices’ of meaning production [...] making interpretation the key method for cultural research” (p. 492). I will come back to this idea of interpretation as the key method, instead suggesting with Zygmunt Bauman (1999b) and Homi Bhabha (1994) that it is not interpretation, but rather translation, that is the key for a possibility of pedagogy and newness, for the political, and for democratization to emerge.

For me, this quick overview of different ways in which culture is understood and used in cultural theory gives birth to a series of questions for a culturally responsive pedagogy, particularly if the latter is formulated within educational theory. Questions such as: How can culture be understood in a culturally responsive pedagogy within educational theory? What does educational theory add, if anything at all, to the understanding of culture? What culture is pedagogy to respond to? And what is pedagogy in a culturally responsive pedagogy?

Those questions come to the fore since, in my readings of paideia, pedagogy itself is inherently linked to the possibility of culture, and particularly democratic culture. Therefore to suggest, as seems to be the case with a culturally responsive pedagogy, that pedagogy is to be responsive to culture, or provoke a response from (dominant) culture to (historically and politically excluded) cultures, seems to construct pedagogy as either outside culture, or as internally and differently linked to a multiplicity of cultures. The problem then becomes that pedagogy itself has to be signalling an empty process, filled with whatever culturally specific content there is, if one is not clear on how pedagogy is understood differently.

Again, I am sensitive, and highly sympathetic, to political actions that challenge the violent suppression of different minority cultures by dominant cultures, and would support any politically charged strategies to resist the arrogance of colonial powers. Still, I do think that a culturally responsive pedagogy has something to gain from being formulated within an educational theory, in which culture is internally linked to processes of democratization through education.

Therefore, in the following I will explore the concept of culture through Zygmunt Bauman, who, even though his argument is based in sociology, opens up something essentially pedagogical in emphasizing culture as something we do: that culture is not a thing, but the way in which praxis operates in society. From this alternative starting point, I will return to Jaeger once more to emphasize the centrality of education and pedagogy in any idea of culture, which is not a reification of the processes cultural theory brings to the fore, but which opens the possibility for (radical) change, and therefore for democracy.

Culture II

The distinction made in intellectual history between nature and culture, and the idea that humans form their lives independently of nature by forming social communities, is the very meaning of paideia and a point made by Bauman (1999b). The very idea of culture is dependent on a (political) space in which people interact as a community', that is, as something else than individual actors concerned only with their own wellbeing (Castoriadis, 1987). That is, the concept of culture according to Bauman, which I follow here, deals with how an individual action is also an expression of social community, or to be precise, culture is “subjectivity objectified”, it is an “effort to understand how an individual action can possess a supra-individual validity” (Bauman, 1999b, p. 94).

Culture is an expression of human intelligent action, as instances of a community “capable of transcending the natural or ‘naturalized’ order and creating new and different orders”(Bauman, 1999b, p. 95). For Bauman, all variations and elaborations of the term “culture” (ontological, anthropological, aesthetical, hermeneutical) come down to different terms standing for “human praxis”. Culture as praxis transcends any version of the concept that tries to connect it to a private experience: “the all-inclusiveness and self-sustaining nature of subjectivity” (p. 95), which for Bauman is the result of “a misplaced nostalgia for a new, more suitable human-ordering-of-the-world, cast into the illusory realm of individualism by obfuscating impact of an alienated, ossified, immobile society” (Bauman, 1999b, p. 95).

Furthermore, it is not the signifying process of meaning-making that is central for Bauman in understanding culture as praxis; instead, at the centre is the necessary “freedom to change the human condition” and therefore “freedom from communal coercion and limitation” (Bauman, 1999b, p. 95). For the community to be the bearer and medium of praxis, we also need, according to Bauman, to leave behind the idea of humankind as being an expression of humanity as such.

That is, praxis, while being an expression of human existence, is not caught in a metaphysical understanding of that existence; praxis rather speaks to the actual “intelligent actions” of the community and its capacity to transcend and alter orders that organize our understandings and actions in the world - orders that are taken to be naturally given and therefore absolutely real. There is nothing natural about these orders, says Bauman: the world is not pre-humanly given as ordered. It is rather the case that the image of order and the following praxis of order are culturally imposed on the world, making the world as such.

What is central to Bauman’s understanding of praxis as a defining characteristic of culture, and important for my aim in this chapter, is the emphasis on freedom from coercive forces and the possibility of changing foundational social orders. This is because both freedom from coercion and changing of orders are also, as I will show in the following section, absolutely central for understanding pedagogy as distinct from inculcation and other similar concepts. That is, pedagogy, educationally, in my view, is not something that is to be understood primarily as responding to culture; education and pedagogy is rather the very praxis that makes culture possible in the first place.

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